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A fierce clay warrior stands guard over a grand piano in the foyer of Qin Dynasty restaurant. The statue is a replica of a terra-cotta soldier, like the ones found buried with the first emperor of China. The piano is one of those modern player pianos whose keys move eerily up and down despite the absence of a musician. The tune is "Easy Like Sunday Morning."
5115 Buffalo Speedway
Houston, TX 77005
Region: Kirby-West U
Szechuan spicy dumplings: $5.50
Szechuan spicy noodles: $5.50
Beijing duck: $5.95
Hunan-style shrimp and scallops: $20
Pork with bamboo shoots: $12
Orange beef: $14
Chicken eggplant clay pot: $12
Hunan beef: $12
As we make our way to the table, I can't help but look up and gape. The restaurant's ceilings are more than 20 feet high. There are more life-size warriors in a chariot drawn by clay horses on top of a gazebo in the dining room. Huge expanses of dark wood and enormous paintings of the Qin dynasty adorn the walls. The curtains look like tapestries, and the carpets have a rust floral pattern. It is a stunningly opulent interior.
"I'm very suspicious," says fellow food writer Paul Galvani as we peruse the expensive menu. White tablecloths, palatial appointments and high entrée prices don't necessarily mean the food lacks authenticity. But the fact that there isn't a single Asian customer in the place is downright frightening.
We ask the waiter for chopsticks (there is only conventional flatware on the table), and we are given the fancy plastic variety, propped up by cute little white ceramic holders shaped like ducks. Paul and I, along with his wife and daughter, all like our food very spicy, so we go with Szechuan dumplings and Szechuan noodles from the appetizer menu, both of which are preceded in print by a pepper, indicating an extra-hot dish.
The free-form dumplings make us wish we hadn't been in such a rush to get the chopsticks. They are so slippery, I eventually resort to the stabbing technique. Covered in an orange sauce redolent of chile oil and sprinkled with scallions, the slick pork-filled dough packages are a real treat, when you finally get them in your mouth. The slurpy-wet noodles are served cold in what tastes like a zesty Thai peanut sauce.
We also order Beijing duck, which comes to the table on a rolling cart accompanied by a three-man crew who perform the task of rolling it into pancakes with considerable pomp. The duck slices include plenty of crispy skin that is arranged, along with some meat, a generous tar-colored glob of hoisin sauce and some chopped scallions, on two crepes. The texture of the meat and sweetness of the plum-flavored hoisin make for a fine duck taco. But is it really Beijing duck? I'm not sure.
That dish is known for complicated recipes that require hours and hours of drying and marinating and roasting in an oven at various time intervals and at three different temperatures. One preparation method includes the elaborate measure of inflating the duck skin with a bicycle pump. When you go to all that trouble, you tend to bring the whole duck to the table to show it off, even if you're serving only a few slices. I am doubly suspicious of the duck because of another poultry appetizer on the menu.
Minced squab in lettuce leaves is an unusual dish sometimes seen at posh Chinese restaurants. Dong Ting offers a serving for four for $12.95. But most Americans are not big pigeon eaters, so here at Qin Dynasty, that ancient delicacy has been transformed into something more accessible: minced chicken in lettuce leaves. This leads me to believe we are getting the Disney version of classical Chinese. And judging by the crowd, it's easy to understand why the restaurant might want to err on the side of the mainstream.
Our entrées are presented on rectangular platters garnished with whittled vegetable artwork. Served with a sculpted apple, the Hunan-style shrimp and scallops are dark and moist with soy and pan juices. This is the most expensive dish we ordered and the least intriguing. The shredded pork with slender bamboo shoots is decorated with a carrot carved into a rose. The pork is chewy and the bamboo shoots are crisp, creating a few textural thrills, even if the flavors are indistinct.
There are two standout dishes. Orange beef features medallions of black crunchy meat coated with chewy threads of intensely flavored dried orange peel, garlic bits and minced chiles. Each bite is a fireworks show in your mouth. Chicken and eggplant cooked in a clay pot is exquisite, but 180 degrees in the other direction. The flavors of the gooey eggplant and a spicy brown sauce penetrate the coating on the battered and fried chunks of chicken. The melding of textures and flavors rounds off the edges of each ingredient into a subtle and comforting casserole. This is the only dish not served on a platter. It comes to the table in an earthenware crock, sort of like the stuff the clay soldiers are made of.
Six thousand life-size terra-cotta soldiers were buried around the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi. (The clay figures took the place of the emperor's living entourage; wives and advisers were buried with previous rulers.) The first emperor of China began his career as a 13-year-old king who took over the state of Qin and then went on a military rampage against neighboring states. While the Qin dynasty was short, it was the beginning of a long string of dynasties that ruled a unified China. Qin, pronounced "chin," is the root of the words China and Chinese.